You read a lot, a bunch, enough? You know how it works? You’ve done this a bunch of times? But when you take those first steps outside the airport and inevitably get smacked in the face by an unfamiliar smell and a jolt of weather it’s impossible to feel prepared. That worrying voice of your mother lodges right at the front of your brain, efficiently pointing out all the many ways you could die. All the things you don’t know. How vulnerable you are bumbling around without knowing the language.
It’s a trust fall into a foreign land, and ultimately, your taxi driver, with whom you can only communicate via a little slip of paper with your hotel address in Chinese. If any part of the system fails, there’s no plan B. And of course, you have a long, quiet, traffic-congested drive in which to consider all of the decisions that have led you to this precarious point.
So when he ultimately drops you off, with a shrug that says This might be the right place?, in the dark at the entrance to an unmarked, rickshaw-width alley, you’ve got to trust that you’re in the right place. Somehow. Beyond the odds. Because in that moment, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you ‘know what you’re doing’.
The unknown is a whole lot bigger than you — you wouldn’t even make for an amuse-bouche sized snack.
And it was all right. We walked one way and then the other in the freezing dark alleys until eventually there appeared a bright red sign glowing cheerfully in the distance. We rang the doorbell and entered into a cocoon of brilliant red - red walls, flags, doors, statues, lamps, thresholds. The smiling man behind the desk gave us maps, advice, room keys, and heavenly bottles of drinking water. And we retreated, too dazed for dinner, into our deep red room.